Oklahoma Hummingbirds

by Mark Howery, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation

Three species of hummingbirds are regularly found in Oklahoma.  Two species, the Ruby-throated and the Black-chinned, nest in Oklahoma and are found here during the summer months.  The third species, the Rufous Hummingbird, does not nest in Oklahoma, but migrates through the state during the spring and fall.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird © Patricia Velte

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the most common and widespread species.  It is found across the eastern 3/4 of Oklahoma and is the only species found in the eastern half of the state.  The Black-chinned Hummingbird is found in the western quarter of the state and is most common in the southwestern corner.  It is the most common hummingbird around the cities of Lawton and Altus, and it has expanded its range eastward over the past three decades and is now common as far east as Chickasha.

Ruby-throated and Black-chinned Hummingbirds return to Oklahoma in early spring – usually between the 10th and 20th of April.  They remain here through the summer and migrate back south during September.  Like many migratory land birds, the male hummingbirds typically return one to two weeks before the females in the spring and migrate south in mid-September about two weeks before the females and juvenile birds.  Contrary to popular myth, hummingbird migration is not triggered by changes in their food supply but by changes in day length.  In the fall, they migrate southward in September regardless of whether or not there is an abundance of flowers and/or hummingbird feeders.

We recommend that people place their hummingbird feeders out in mid April – between the 10th and 15th unless they see a hummingbird earlier than that – and maintain these feeders until late October – Halloween is an easy date to remember.  Nearly all hummingbirds have migrated south by the first of October, but occasionally stragglers, especially young-of-the-year birds, may be seen throughout October and these birds benefit from the energy boost provided by hummingbird feeders.

Hummingbird feeders should be filled with a sugar water solution that is approximately one part sugar to four parts water.  This can be made a little stronger in the spring and fall when hummingbirds are migrating, and a little weaker during the heat of the summer.  It is not necessary to add red food coloring to the sugar water – although this was commonly recommended twenty years ago.  Also, it is not necessary to use elaborate nectar mixtures, although there is nothing wrong with using these.   In addition to drinking flower nectar and sugar water, hummingbirds obtain the protein that they need by eating the small insects that are attracted to flowers and sometimes pollen.  Even when they appear to be dependent upon your feeders, they are supplementing their diets with insects.

It is extremely important to keep hummingbird feeders clean!  Sugar water is an excellent growing medium for yeast and some bacteria, therefore it can be contaminated and sour (turn cloudy) within a few days during the summer.  We recommend emptying and cleaning hummingbird feeders every five to seven days during cool weather in the spring and fall, but every two or three days when the afternoon temperatures are routinely above 85 degrees.

You may have noticed hummingbirds acting very aggressively around your feeders.  Hummingbirds defend feeding territories (usually patches of flowers) during most of the year, so defending a hummingbird feeder is a normal behavior for them.  Often, one hummingbird will try to dominate a feeder and drive all other hummingbirds away.  A hummingbird can usually accomplish this if there are only a few other hummingbirds in the area, however, if there are more than eight to ten hummingbirds, this territorial behavior will decrease because of the difficulty in driving off a large number of birds.  Two remedies can be used to address aggressive hummingbirds – both involve placing more than one feeder in the yard.  If there are only a few birds around (less than six), you might try to put out additional feeders that are scattered in the yard twenty-five feet or more apart.  This allows multiple hummingbirds to establish individual territories in your yard.  If you have several hummingbirds (more than five), it might be better to place several hummingbird feeders in the yard close together – separated by only a few feet.  This will allow multiple hummingbirds to feed at one time and thus concentrate the birds in one area where it is difficult for a single bird to take control.  The second remedy is being used more and more in areas with large hummingbird populations.

Male and female hummingbirds normally defend individual territories.  During the nesting season, the female alone builds her nest, incubates the eggs and raises the young.  Females usually lay two eggs in a nest (occasionally three eggs), and normally raises one or two broods per year.  Hummingbird nests are extremely small – about the size of a half walnut.  They are constructed of spider webs and fine plant fibers, and are build on the ends of tress branches 10 to 30 feet above the ground.  Often, lichens or moss are incorporated into the nest and these help camouflage the nests in the trees.

In addition to placing feeders out for the hummingbirds, you can provide for their needs by growing flowers that they prefer.  Hummingbirds find flowers by their sense of sight and are attracted to red, orange, deep pink and deep yellow flowers.  They also appear to prefer flowers with a tubular shape that resemble the hummingbird’s long bill.  Some beneficial flowers for hummingbirds include the following:

Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)         Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans)

Swamp Hibiscus (Hibiscus militaris)                          Flame Azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum)

Autumn Salvia (Salvia greggii)                                    Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans)

Scarlet Sage (Salvia splendens)                                  Texas Red Sage (Salvia coccinea)

Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea)                   Beard Tongue or Penstemon (Penstemon species)

Red Morning Glory (Ipomea coccinea)                   Cypress Vine (Ipomea quamoclit)

Four O’Clocks (Mirabilis jalapa)                                                 Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

Red Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)                            Missouri Verbena (Verbena missouriensis)

Crimson Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)               Jewelweed or Touch-Me-Not (Impatiens capensis)

Red-hot Poker (Kniphofia uvaria)                            Coral Bells (Heuchera sanguinea)

Red Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora)                            Tall Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata)

Prairie Phlox (Phlox pilosa)                                          Standing Cypress (Gilia rubra)

Smooth Wild Petunia (Ruellia strepens)                 Canna (Canna cultivars)